Guitarist Bob Bain is the ultimate stealth swinger. From his contributions to Sinatra's classic Capitol recording of "I've Got You Under My Skin," Nat "King" Cole's "Unforgettable" to the noir undulation of Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn," the stampeding brawn of "Bonanza" and superheroic sizzle of the "Batman" themes — you've grown up with his music, and Bain has exerted a definitive influence on American pop culture.
The 91-year-old musician, who appears at Burbank's Viva Cantina on Tuesday, Sept. 22, has strong ties to Burbank also — he was Doc Severinson's Tonight Show Band guitarist for 22 years, but that's one more impressive credit in a resume so dazzlingly laden with musical milestones that just reading the a list of the man's accomplishments is exhausting.
"I came out from Chicago to Los Angeles in the '30s, finished high school here and after I graduated, I started playing music," Bain said. "I joined a cowboy trio, Joe Wolverton's Trio. He had been my music teacher, asked if I wanted to join and of course I said 'yes.'"
Wolverton wasn't just any common neighborhood instructor — he had been Les Paul's mentor and early professional partner, when the duo, working in St Louis and Chicago, was billed as Sunny Joe Wolverton & Rhubarb Red.
"Joe Wolverton was wonderful, and he didn't just give lessons," Bain said. "We'd sit and talk about music for hours, listen to Django Reinhardt records together. And so I joined, we played all over, went out to New Mexico and back here to Hollywood, did the Tom Tom Club and Shuggie's Tropics — these were both down on Vine and Sunset by NBC."
Bain quickly distinguished himself as a formidable player and made some critical alliances. "I was with Tommy Dorsey's band in 1944," Bain explained, "RCA had a studio on Sycamore in Hollywood and we made a lot of records, 'Sunny Side of the Street,' 'Opus One,' which became a huge hit."
"Tommy had a great band — Buddy Rich was in it — a lot of great musicians, and this was when he had a harp and strings," Bain said. "Nelson Riddle played fourth trombone, and we became good friends. He started writing arrangements for Tommy and got really good at it. Then Nelson and I got together with Bob Crosby's band for awhile but when that broke up, Nelson got drafted and I started my own band, the San Fernando Playboys."
Post-war era Los Angeles was the epicenter of both explosive musical creativity — in jazz, country, R&B and pop — and, with dozens of newly founded independent record companies, unparalleled commercial activity. Bain fit right in.
"My first opportunity to work on my own in the studio came from Andre Previn. He was only 17 but he was at MGM orchestrating things for them, and that's how I started at the studios," Bain said. "Then Nelson came back and I started doing all of his dates, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat Cole — I was on the original 'Unforgettable.' Nat's guitar player was out of town so he used me."
By the late 1950s, Bain was a fixture as a session man and staple on just about every genre being recorded. "I worked all over, did a lot of stuff for RCA and other companies, but I was Capitol's staff guitarist for five years. I just left my guitar and amp there at night because I was always coming back in the next day."
"I was working with Ken Nelson. First thing I did with him was Tommy Sands' 'Teenage Crush,' which became the fastest-selling record in history at that time. I did all the country stuff with Ken. We recorded with Sonny James, Ferlin Husky, Buck Owens — he was Ken's favorite rhythm player. He'd ask if I'd mind if we used Buck and I always said 'No, go right ahead.' We'd have him in an isolation booth so we could either keep it low or really feature him depending on the job. Buck was great, really talented, just like Glen Campbell, who was starting out as studio guitarist there also. He was a hell of player. What he did, he did perfectly."
"'The Tonight Show,' that just happened for me. Doc came out here, and he offered me the guitar chair'" Bain said."It was really a matter of just doing the show or keep on doing the studio work. I mean, I could still record, I could do morning jobs, just not any all-day calls. And I could do record dates at night, if I wanted. But 'The Tonight Show' was very pleasant, they were all great players and good friends. My wife really liked it because I just worked from about 3 p.m. until 6:30 and you had a Saturday-Monday weekend."
Bain's charmed existence has brought him nothing but happiness and despite his fabled, spectrum-spanning capabilities, he remains true to one style.
"I am a jazz player, but not like Barney Kessel or Herb Ellis," he said. "I play studio jazz and when I work clubs, like I will be doing with Johnny Pisano on Tuesday, sure it's jazz, but I'm not a guy who does six choruses in a row. I don't do that."
This Viva gig, celebrating the 19th anniversary of Pisano's famed Guitar Night concert series, should be a memorable one. "I love playing with John. I've known him for at least 50 years," Bain said. "And I always bring in Jim Fox, too, another great guitarist. We do some of the older literature that's been forgotten, it's very enjoyable."
"It's all I ever do. Play guitar. I've never been out of work, and even in the early days when it often wouldn't pay a lot, it just didn't matter. I have been very fortunate."